Lessons from the Battle of Manila

Sunday, October 22nd, 2023

With approximately 800,000 residents, Manila was one of the largest population centers encountered by American forces in any theater in World War 2:

IJA General Tomoyuki Yamashita, who commanded all Japanese troops on Luzon, did not want to defend Manila for two reasons. First, he saw its mainly flammable wooden buildings as a death trap for his troops. Second, the large civilian population would require feeding and care, something his logistically starved troops could not do. However, the IJN commander, Admiral Sanji Iwabuchi, saw himself under no obligation to listen to orders given by his rivals in the IJA, and in hopes of regaining his honor, elected to stay with his forces and fight to the death while Yamashita and the majority of the Japanese retired from the city.

The defenders’ goals were to inflict maximum casualties on the US forces, delay the use of the port of Manila by the US Navy, and make the city unusable for military, civilian, or political purposes.


The Japanese, despite their extensive preparation of the battlefield, were almost doomed to fail as soon as the Americans had encircled the city. Once isolated, as seen in other urban fights, the defenders lost the ability to resupply, and were consigned to either starving or being rooted out one by one by the advancing Americans. With a force of nearly twenty thousand men, the Japanese should have been able to mount a counterattack and break out from the encirclement of only thirty-five thousand Americans in three divisions, but the lack of coordinated Japanese counterattacks and overall static defensive strategy allowed the Americans to effectively trap the defenders and clear the city.


Within Manila, the power plant, water treatment plant, port, Novaliches Dam, and San Juan Reservoir were seen by both as critical centers of gravity. Accordingly, the Japanese planned to destroy these as part of their scorched-earth campaign, while American forces sought to secure them intact.


The IJN plan to spoil the American victory and to further ensure the destruction of Manila as a functioning city was to include not only destroying critical infrastructure but also the deliberate murder of thousands of civilians. In scenes reminiscent of Nanking, thousands of innocent men, women, and children were shot, stabbed, beheaded, skinned alive, raped, and mutilated by Japanese forces in what became known as the Manila Massacre. Thousands more were driven from their homes and left without food, shelter, and access to medical care. Response to these mass atrocities committed within Manila became an additional mission of US Army forces across Luzon. US troops were tasked with caring for displaced persons. The care of civilians displaced from the battlefield became a major concurrent mission during and after the battle.

Urban battles do not occur in sterile environments. Within Manila, more than one hundred thousand civilians were killed either deliberately by the Japanese or caught in the crossfire. Current US forces need to be prepared to address the presence of civilians on the battlefield.


The high variability of Manila’s physical terrain that American forces encountered provides further lessons for modern observers. The city was composed of everything from small, wooden houses to massive, earthquake-resistant government buildings, such as the Manila Post Office that withstood days of direct artillery and tank fire. An entire squadron of the 1st Cavalry Division was forced to clear the Rizal baseball stadium that was being used as a Japanese ammunition dump, eventually driving tanks across the field to engage defenders fortified within the dugouts. The thick, Spanish-era forts and walls of the Intramuros further provided a unique challenge to the Americans, who had to contend with assaulting structures and reducing barricades that had been made to withstand sixteenth-century siege warfare.

Today, cities throughout Asia are also full of a diverse blend of architecture dating from dozens of distinct time periods. In Bangkok during the 2010 riots, the Thai military used armored personnel carriers and thousands of troops to clear a shopping mall full of protestors, resulting in massive fires throughout the area. In the Battle of Hue in 1968, North Vietnamese forces used the ancient Hue Citadel as a fortress, stymying American and South Vietnamese forces. More recently in Ukraine, the Ukrainian defenders of Mariupol turned the Azovstal steel factory into a nearly impenetrable fortress, defying the Russian invaders for months.


As in other urban battles, such as at Aachen, American tanks and artillery quickly became direct fire breaching assets that would punch holes into the thick walls of the Intramuros and government buildings, especially after MacArthur limited artillery fires in order to spare the city unnecessary destruction. Infantrymen also developed new clearing tactics, often using flamethrowers and bazookas to clear rooms and buildings. At the post office, infantry soldiers further innovated by bypassing the Japanese defenders on the heavily fortified ground floor and breaching the structure through a window on the second floor, then fighting their way downstairs.


  1. Longarch says:

    “At the post office, infantry soldiers further innovated by bypassing the Japanese defenders on the heavily fortified ground floor and breaching the structure through a window on the second floor, then fighting their way downstairs.”

    These guys were doing “Nakatomi Space” maneuvers before “Die Hard” made it cool.



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